During his time as Swansea City manager in the second and third tiers of English football, Roberto Martinez will have witnessed myriad examples of poor defending. But you can bet that in all the matches he’s stood on the sidelines for at the Liberty Stadium, the Catalan will have sampled few defensive displays as deplorable as the one served up by his Everton side on Tuesday evening in their 3-0 defeat.
Nor will he have seen many worse than those which the Merseysiders have put in at Goodison Park this season, for the League Cup exit was merely another moribund chapter in what’s been an abject start to the Toffees’ campaign.
So what’s the narrative here? Why has a side that was both effervescent and effective throughout the previous campaign been sapped of its confidence and swagger?
A turbulent pre-season didn’t help for starters. In preparation for Martinez’s first season in charge, the Toffees played in the International Champions Cup tournament in the United States against the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Valencia. Subsequently they sparkled during the early stages of the season, but a disjointed and somewhat peculiar set of fixtures this time round yielded no victories and no rhythm; something that’s transcended into the displays so far.
The players have looked undercooked too. The sharpness and intensity that was so prevalent last season has been scarcely seen; at times so has an obligatory level of fitness. In addition, a host of players haven’t quite recovered from their World Cup exploits as of yet, whether that be down to an excess of mental or physical exertion.
But in reality, there’s no excuse for any of those conspiring factors. All could have been avoided with proper preparation and requisite organisation that is unsaid but expected of any top-tier Premier League outfit. Now the manager, the team and the supporters are paying the price.
In the last two games, Everton have conceded six goals against mid-table opposition, all six of which have been down to elementary individual errors. The team that boasted the third best defensive record in the Premier League last season have now conceded more goals than any side in Europe’s top flight, aside from French minnows Evian.
Whenever a team attacks the Toffees with any kind of endeavour or impetus, it’s akin to tugging a rogue piece of thread on a loosely sewn tapestry and watching it unravel.
It’s made for a staggering transformation, and although Martinez is culpable for some peculiar team selections and nonsensical substitutions, you have to wonder how much a manager can do amidst such stupendous incapability.
Tim Howard, a man hailed as a goalkeeping deity in the wake of his heroics at the World Cup, has been enduring his worst ever spell in an Everton shirt. After conceding six against Chelsea—a game in which he was lucky not to receive his marching orders—he was badly at fault for a pair of goals in the game against Crystal Palace and for another two in the match with the Swans.
Sylvain Distin is a player that’s received untold praise during his spell at Everton for the manner in which he belies his advancing years. But suddenly he’s starting to look like a 36-year-old defender. Errors have crept into the Frenchman’s game and put bluntly, he looks to have gravely aged overnight.
These are just two examples, but there are many more longstanding squad members struggling for form. And although the manager is quick to talk about the collective and how it’s a cumulative responsibility, there must be some increasingly perpetual concerns about the form of various senior players.
It’s imperative the Toffees haul themselves off their knees and out of this slump, but the undeniable truth is that things look set to get even more difficult. Everton go to Anfield next—a venue where they tend to lose even when they’re playing wonderfully—which is followed by a 4000-mile trip into deepest Russia and a clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Innately bristling with positivity, Martinez has glossed over the performances in recent weeks, insisting his team have played a lot better than results might suggest. But behind the scenes, you suspect that affable front will be shed and even in the face of such a tough run of fixtures, it’s time for the manager to be ruthless.
Going forward, young central defender John Stones must be given an extended run in the team. With the composed 20-year-old at the back the Toffees have looked much more assured, conceding just once with the former Barnsley man at centre-back. He and skipper Phil Jagielka are the central defensive partnership the Everton boss must bank on going forward.
Stones will probably make a few errors, as any young player does, but Everton would be no worse off for that at this juncture, and consequentially, a young player destined for a glittering career would be accruing some vital experience.
Indeed, it’s hard not to get excited about the club’s future with Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman and the aforementioned Stones tied down to long-term deals, and with murmurings of a new stadium in the pipeline down the road at Walton Hall Park, the Goodison Park hierarchy are making all the right noise in that respect.
But with senior players desperate for any kind of form and some critical decisions to be made, the short-term doesn’t look quite so rosey. The club, Martinez and the players have facilitated their own downfall in the main this season and it has become abundantly clear that Everton football club are at the base of a steep learning curve.
Things will improve; the Catalan is too bright a manager and these players are too talented not to eventually turn this predicament around. But with a callous look at this squad required and a perilously difficult patch of games on the horizon, matters looks as though they could well get worse before they get better for the Toffees.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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